Grant Feature: Studying the Cultural Consequences of Computers

Computers are infinitely more powerful than they were 20 years ago, providing instant information at all times. But is there a downside to speeding down the information highway with your smartphone or laptop?

Looking at Pros, Cons of Information Age

A newly-formed local think-tank is prying into that question. Its efforts were bolstered recently by a $7,000 major grant from the South Dakota Humanities Council

The newly formed CLASSICS Institute at Dakota State University in Madison will present a discussion series called "The Cultural Consequences of Computers" at four locations across South Dakota. The series will examine technology's effect on rural and small-town life, jurisprudence, the act of reading and human existence

The CLASSICS Institute was established in the fall of 2017 at DSU to examine the ethical, social, and existential condition of humankind, 40 years into the computer revolution. Named from an acronym (“Collaborations for Liberty And Security Strategies for Integrity in a Cyber-enabled Society”), the multifaceted hub for education and research in cybersecurity and cyber operations is directed by Joseph Bottum, a nationally-known public intellectual and bestselling author who has frequently presented at the South Dakota Festival of Books.

Because SDHC was created in 1972 to "explore the human condition" and provide humanities programming for South Dakotans, a program exploring the effect of burgeoning technology on the human condition was an especially good fit for an SDHC grant. 

Major Intellectual Resource

"The CLASSICS Institute is poised to become both a major intellectual resource for South Dakota and a national center of thought about liberty, cyber-ethics and the effects of technology," noted Bottum, the project director, in the organization's grant application. "The CLASSICS Institute begins with the proposition that the humanities are not rendered untimely by technology but are, in truth, made ever more vital and compelling."

Bottum said literature, philosophy, theology and history are pillars of understanding that could never be replaced by computers.

"We must get past the idea that if only we had better computers, better algorithms, life would be perfected and all the vain past be left behind. In the words of the college dean Benjamin F. Jones, 'We've studied computers long enough at Dakota State University to realize that's a losing proposition.'"

Joseph Bottum is a nationally known public intellectual and bestselling author who has frequently presented at the South Dakota Festival of Books.

Joseph Bottum, a nationally known public intellectual and bestselling author who has frequently presented at the South Dakota Festival of Books, speaks at a South Dakota Festival of Books event with fellow author Christine Stewart-Nunez. Bottom is the head of the new "CLASSICS Institute" at Dakota State University, which recently received a grant from the South Dakota Humanities Council to explore the effect of technology on the human condition.

The Cultural Consequences of Computers: A South Dakota Speakers Series

Funds from the Humanities Council will be matched with resources from the institute and university, along with private parties and such partners as the Rapid City Library and the State Bar of South Dakota. Speakers and dates for the series have yet to be announced, but the following topics and locations have been established:

  1. "The Change in Rural and Small-Town Life"
    Location: Madison
  2. "The Change in Jurisprudence"
    Location: Sioux Falls
  3. "The Change in the Act of Reading"
    Location: Rapid City
  4. "The Change in Human Existence"
    Location: Hot Springs

'Profound Advances' Should Spur 'Profound Suspicions'

The CLASSICS Institute considers the computer revolution a "profound advance" that should prompt from the public "profound suspicions about its ancillary effects."

Events like the 2018 lecture series, which will explore these effects, help support the organization's foundational beliefs, which, in part, acknowledge the advantages provided by computers while also cautioning against misuse of the technology. The institute is especially concerned with issues of human freedom and privacy in the era of "Big Data."

"The computer revolution has enabled so much change, for enormous good and enormous ill, and Dakota State's CLASSICS Institute exists to speak and teach, loudly and publicly, about both the good and the ill," according to Bottum.

The computer revolution continues to be a topic of national interest. Author Nicholas Carr was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in General Nonfiction for his New York Times Bestselling book "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains."

Meanwhile, the Washington Post's Christine Emba cautions society to pause and consider the effects of "constant connectivity" brought about by smartphones before embarking on the next wave of technological advances with artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

Computer and smartphone.

Prioritizing Deep Community Reflection on Cyber Ethics

"Beginning with public engagement highlights the critical urgency of ethical conundra that, while they occupy headlines out of Silicon Valley and its many virtual extensions, emerge simultaneously from almost every community in the world," Bottum said.

"South Dakota has an opportunity with the CLASSICS Institute to become thought leaders in this environment, and 'The Cultural Consequences of Computers' speakers series will prioritize deep community reflection on cyber ethics as a primary objective in that broader goal."

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